Talking about Intellectual Freedom with Community

Q: How can I talk with members of the community about the importance of intellectual freedom?

That’s a great question. Intellectual freedom is foundational to the work we do in libraries and so talking about it, and why it is so important to the work we do and our ability to serve the community, should be a key component of ongoing library advocacy. That advocacy is so essential to building support for the library, including having allies before a challenge ever happens. And while the relationships and trust you build with members of the community in your daily work are essential, your question underscores the fact that librarians must also be proactive and look for ways to educate the community about the library and intellectual freedom. 

We addressed this topic very broadly in a post a number of years ago about educating parents about intellectual freedom. But we recently found out about these privacy field guides developed by the American Library Association and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and one in particular outlines an approach to advocacy we thought was particularly insightful: How to Talk about Privacy. Although the specifics in this guide relate to privacy (another critical issue for libraries and citizens), the overall approach is applicable when crafting any message: ask questions about whom you want to reach, what motivates them, and what your goal is in talking with them to determine what you want to say and how to say it.

The guide talks about these things in the context of developing an “empathy map” to better understand what might motivate—or resonate with—your intended audience. One simple way to apply that idea to this topic is by changing the question from “How can I talk with members of the community about why intellectual freedom is important?” to “How can I talk with members of the community about why intellectual freedom is important to them?” That small shift can open up possibilities in your approach and messaging. (This is not to suggest that members of your community are a monolith in motivations or values or fears—obviously that isn’t the case.)

You’ll also want to develop a list of talking points—key things that you ideally want everyone to know about intellectual freedom and libraries. For example:

  • The right to seek and receive information is a foundation of our democracy; indeed is essential to it
  • Children and teens as well as adults have First Amendment rights to seek and receive information
  • Parents and guardians have the right to decide what they want their own children to read; the library cannot play that role for them for many reasons, including the fact that every family is different in what they will decide
  • “Choice” is an essential concept in libraries–no one is forced to read or check out anything
  • Censorship infringes on the rights and choices of others, including other parents and guardians to make choices for their own children and families regarding what they read
  • Publicly funded libraries have a responsibility to follow board-approved policies in selecting materials to meet the wide-ranging needs, interests, identities and experiences of everyone in the communities they serve
  • Commitment to intellectual freedom assures that the the rights of everyone in the community are respected when selection decisions are made and concerns are addressed

Now think about ways you might convey these and/or other points in a way that connects with your audience on a personal level. 

There may be contexts in which sharing all of this information at once is appropriate–perhaps you’ll be invited to speak to a community group, or at a board meeting, and will have the opportunity to talk for more than a few minutes. But it’s equally or more likely you’ll have briefer opportunities. Combine insights from your empathy exercise(s) with your knowledge of intellectual freedom and the work you do to craft your talking points, however you’ll deliver them. Turn them into brief statements (aka “elevator speeches”). Practice these until they feel natural to you and you can bring them up whether in conversation or a presentation.  

Here’s an example for a public library:

 “Your family–every family–is unique. The library is the place you all can come for information and recreational reading. We want to make sure all of you will find books and other materials you’ll find useful and enjoyable–there’s an entire selection policy we follow to do that! And when you come to the library, you and your family deserve freedom of choice. Censorship shouldn’t make that decision or take that power away from you or from anyone else. We know every family can find a range of materials they’ll enjoy just as we know not every book is going to be appealing to every family, because tastes and interests differ. But when a book is removed from the library because someone doesn’t like or agree with it, censorship–and the decision-makers who chose to censor that material–have taken away your choice. They’ve said they don’t trust you. That isn’t fair to you or anyone else in the community.”

And, an example for a school library:

“We work to create a school library program our families will value. ‘Choice’ is a unique aspect of the school library; your child and other children have the freedom to choose what they want to read or research based on their academic needs and individual interests. This differs from the classroom, where curriculum requirements often drive reading selections. The professional responsibility of selecting quality, appropriate library materials for our students is foundational to our work and guided by specific, approved policies and procedures. We strive to have books to meet the personalized needs and interests of your child, while also knowing not every book will be the right fit for your child because every child–and every family–is different. We encourage you to be involved in your child’s education and help guide their reading choices, just as we encourage other families to do the same. It isn’t fair when everyone’s choices are taken away by removing books simply because they aren’t the right choice for one child or family.”

Speak with the goal of connecting. And regardless of who you are talking to and what you specifically focus on, strive to make sure your audience understands that when you are talking about the library and intellectual freedom and serving the community, you are talking about them.

March 2022

Thank you to Monica Treptow for contributing to this response and Merri Lindgren and Julia Lee for their feedback.